Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman (R) submitted his $1 billion proposed budget for fiscal 2016 to the Howard County Council on April 20. Following an April 29 public hearing, the council was scheduled to begin a series of work sessions to review the budget in time for a May 20 vote on acceptance.
“It’s less than last year’s budget, mostly because of the large $43 million surplus last year,” Kittleman said. “I particularly want to thank the local police and fire union leadership for working together with us to mitigate the impact of specific planned salary increases.”
A contract extension will defer fire and police increases scheduled to take effect on Jan 1, 2016, until the last pay period of June 2016, providing a $1 million savings for the county. In exchange, the county will provide another 2% COLA increase for fiscal 2017 starting in June 2017, he said.
Despite cuts in state aid for the Howard County Public School System, the budget proposal fully covers an anticipated $2.8 million gap in funding. The county’s total $544.1 million contribution to schools is $3 million higher than the Maintenance of Effort requirement.
Combined with anticipated state funding, the Board of Education request of $776.3 million is also fully funded.
“Education remains the county’s top priority,” Kittleman said, with $13.7 million (66.7%) of new revenue going to the school system and 101.7 new positions funded to meet demands from increased student enrollment. Funding for the library system and Howard Community College remains at the historically high levels of fiscal 2015.
Other budget highlights include continued support for the Mental Health Authority’s Mobile Crisis Team, which is new within the police department, and funding of the Emergency Department’s Follow-Up Program.
In partnership with The Horizon Foundation and Howard County General Hospital, the county will be able to address the first recommendation of the county’s Mental Health Task Force by providing funding for a behavioral health specialist, in addition to funding a pilot program with the nonprofit organization way station to provide outpatient crisis stabilization services.
“The police department will be holding another academy to offset attrition, and we have increased funding for public safety to historic levels,” Kittleman said, while the Department of Corrections will implement phase one of its video visitation initiative and continue development of its re-entry program for criminal offenders.
“Most of the community service grants are level funded,” he said, with the exception of a $35,000 increase in funding for Hope Works, an organization dealing with domestic violence and sexual assault.
A grant of $1.4 million will enable the Inner Arbor Trust to begin construction of the Chrysalis pavilion, which is Phase I of the Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods project. “They will hopefully start building in July and it should be completed by next spring,” Kittleman said.
The county is also providing funding to continue the community input engagement program with Long Reach. “We’re looking at the revitalization of all our villages with Long Reach being at the top of the list, and we’re working with Oakland Mills as well,” he said.
The county executive advised the council that his office appears to have an increase in funding from the previous year.
“That’s because of transparency,” Kittleman said. “I want everybody who works for me to be paid out of my budget. The previous administration had nine positions paid from other departments; if you compare the two, I’m actually [spending] less than the previous administration.”
Step increases will be provided for all eligible county employees in fiscal 2016. “More importantly for them is to know they have a budget that will not require any furloughs or layoffs,” Kittleman said.
In response to increased Medicaid enrollment in the county, a new Department of Health position will be added to help connect eligible citizens with the program. Healthy Howard will also receive $50,000 to fund a position focused on helping inmates in the detention center acquire health insurance.
“Even though Healthy Howard is being reduced, much of what they asked for is being done, but through the Health Department,” Kittleman said.
Overall, the proposed budget totals approximately $19 million less than the fiscal 2015 budget, representing a 2% decrease.
On the legislative side, the council approved the transfer of $1.99 million from the General Fund Contingency Reserve to the Department of Public Works to cover unanticipated expenses for snow removal last winter.
Grant approval of $33,600 was requested by the Department of Public Works to cover computer system upgrades for the county’s flood warning system, while the Office of Transportation requested approval of $1,845,828 for Connect-A-Ride services operated through the Regional Transit Authority.
New legislation submitted by Kittleman in April seeks approval to sell off three county properties acquired in 2014, in addition to a fourth property submitted for disposal by the previous administration.
The properties in question include the Flier Building, the Hurst properties along Route 1 in southern Howard County, the Bickley Residence in Ellicott City and Maryland Environmental Services.
According to a report issued by Kittleman’s transition team, renovations of the Flier Building could cost up to $7.5 million on top of the $2.8 million paid to acquire the property. The Ulman administration intended to use the Flier Building as a new headquarters for the Howard County Economic Development Authority’s Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship.
“This funding is not available in fiscal 2016 and may not be available in the future,” Kittleman wrote in a letter to the council chair. “In addition, I do not believe that spending three times the purchase price on renovations is fiscally prudent.”
Sale of the properties could provide an additional $4 million that could be used to purchase a site for a 13th county high school in the next fiscal year and also unlock state matching funds for school construction included in the state budget.
Outlay to acquire the properties amounted to approximately $5.82 million, and only two of the properties were intended for public use.
Although the county stands to lose $1.8 million through the sale, based on conservative estimates of property value, “I believe this is the right choice to make,” Kittleman wrote. “Continuing to own these four properties is not a fiscally prudent option.”